25 Venezuelans believed missing after boat sinks en route to Trinidad

Officials say they're searching for 25 possible Venezuelan migrants believed to be missing from a boat that sank in the Caribbean Sea before reaching the nearby island of Trinidad.

9 people saved in rough waters, said official with Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard

Officers on a coast guard vessel patrol the coast of Port of Spain on April 16, 2009. The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard is helping with a search and rescue operation for missing passengers after a boat sunk off the shores of Venezuela. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Search teams combed the Caribbean on Thursday for 25 possible Venezuelan migrants that went missing after a boat sank in rough seas en route to the island of Trinidad, authorities said.

At least nine others from the sunken boat had been pulled alive from the water, while officials said they were struggling to pin down exactly how many people had gone missing.

The number of people initially believed to be on the boat increased because officials discovered that several of those onboard had not been listed as approved crew members or passengers, said Lt. Kerron Valere of the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.

The small craft left Venezuela on Tuesday and overturned in the sea at some point not far from shore, Valere said in a statement.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately make public comments about the accident involving suspected migrants. 

Relatives await word from search team

Valere said Venezuela was leading the search within that nation's waters and the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard was assisting.

He said the official manifest listed 25 people on the boat, but authorities had determined that at least 34 were on the vessel.

Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Robert Alcala said 25 boarded in the Venezuelan port of Guiria but others illegally got on at another stop along the coast. He said fishermen had rescued several people after the sinking.

Dozens of relatives of the missing were in Guiria anxiously waiting for word back from the search vessels, he said.

Alcala told The Associated Press that Venezuela's economic crunch of hyperinflation and food shortages drove the passengers — mostly women — onto the boat.

"They go to Trinidad because of the economic situation in this country," he said.

In recent years, an estimated 3.7 million Venezuelans have fled the crisis-wracked country, where a political struggle is now playing out between U.S.-backed opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido and socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Most of Venezuela's migrants travel by land into neighbouring Colombia and Brazil, but others overload fishing boats to cross the sometimes deadly Caribbean waters and head for nearby islands.

Venezuelans line up to cross into Colombia at the border in Paraguachon on Feb. 16, 2018. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

Migrants often go to border cities and some Caribbean islands to work, allowing them to send money home to families back in Venezuela.

In January 2018, authorities called off a search for more than two dozen migrants who boarded a boat leaving Venezuela that crashed onto rocks on the nearby Dutch island of Curacao. Officials said two people survived that crash.

Survivors found drifting away

The missing boat overturned in strong waves near the island of Patos, roughly eight kilometres off the Venezuelan coast. Some survivors were found drifting up to 55 kilometres from where the boat sank.

Seven security force vessels were searching the waters for the missing, an official from the civil protection agency said. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. 

The online news website Daily Express quoted a Venezuelan living in Trinidad who said her sister could not be located.

The 21-year-old was headed to the island to flee Venezuela because she said it lacked food and hospital care.